By Joanna Ribner / Published May 2020
It is hard to imagine why a garbage chute, of all things, has to meet strict fire/life safety codes! Those readers who have lived in the north and are familiar with chimneys will understand. The chute is vented at the top to release noxious odors and hot air, which effectively turns the chute into a giant chimney. If there is a fire in the trash room, the chute will draw the smoke and flames upwards, affecting the residential floors. That is why it falls under the fire code.
Do you remember the movie As Good As It Gets when Jack Nicholson throws the dog down the trash chute? Or the CSI episode where someone falls down a trash chute into the compactor? The 45-degree angle became code to ensure that a small child or an animal could not climb into the chute and fall or get trapped in the chute. A more practical benefit is that it limits the size of the garbage bag that a resident can dispose of. Trash chutes are typically 24-inches in diameter, which is not very wide. Over-sized items and boxes can block a chute and can also damage the metal sides and bottom of the chute. So while the narrow opening can seem like an inconvenience, there are valid reasons for the restriction.
Nearly every maintenance person uses the door at the bottom of the chute to stop garbage falling on the floor when the dumpster is being emptied. But this door—called a guillotine or discharge door—is actually a fire damper door. It is equipped with a lead link that will melt if the temperature in the trash room indicates a fire. That allows the door to slide shut, closing off the trash chute and stopping smoke and flames from being drawn up the chute.
Unfortunately, as convenient as it is to close the door when the dumpster is moved, it also frequently causes damage. The door is 10 gauge metal, which is quite thin. If garbage accumulates on it, or someone drops a heavy item, the door can get bent. Fire code requires that the door must be able to run on its tracks. If it is bent, it will not do so smoothly. The fusible lead link often falls off and needs to be replaced. Anything we can do to educate the maintenance staff to leave this door open will save your property in repairs!
Fire marshals used to just check to see if a lead fusible link was present. However, more and more jurisdictions are insisting that the link be changed annually. Please be sure that your link has a date written on it with permanent marker, and that it is current.
Trash room fires are amazingly common! All it takes is someone tipping a lit cigarette into the chute or disposing of garbage with a smoldering rag in it—there are countless ways to ignite a fire. Think about typical garbage—greasy wrappers, a paper towel with cooking oil on it—and the fact that many condominium trash rooms are used to store chemicals, paint cans, etc. This makes for a ripe environment for fires. The deadliest threat to residents is the smoke.
Trash chute doors have three code requirements. They must self-close, they must self-latch, and they must be UL “B” Label doors with a 1.5-hour rating. This means that if the trash chute door is closed and latched, it will not fail for 90 minutes. This aids in the safe evacuation of residents and staff from a residential building. Many older buildings have doors that have been retrofitted to close and latch, but they are not UL rated doors. In case of a fire, those doors will melt, endangering everyone in the building. It is so important that all three of these criteria are met.
Perhaps you have installed new trash chute doors, or you have older ones that are being repaired as needed. Residents can be brutal to the doors, breaking off the closers or wrenching the handles, which then need to be replaced. So you look on the internet, and you see the parts you need. One site has them for upwards of $70, and one site has them for upwards of $30! But, your local hardware store has something very similar for $15!
Remember the part about the door having to be UL rated? That means not only the door itself goes through UL testing, but each individual component goes through UL testing! The testing is rigorous and very expensive. There is every possibility that the less expensive parts are NOT UL tested. If there is a fire, the door with the “knock-off” replacement parts will fail. Be sure that you are buying from a reputable business, and ask for the UL certificate before you enter your credit card number.
Final words on safety: Do not overlook the dryer vent system. Whether you have communal laundry rooms or each unit has their own dryer, lint buildup occurs. Lint is possibly the most flammable material in the building! Because it is damp, it causes smoldering and dangerous smoke. The dryer vents should be cleaned every two years on average (varying due to levels of use). In buildings with individual dryers in each unit, each individual unit needs to be accessed so each dryer line is cleaned out. It is not enough to just do the “master” vertical line.
When you call for dryer cleaning quotes, make sure you specify whether your property has side-vented dryers or a vertical stack, as some companies do one type but not the other. Do you have a flat roof so that the roof fans are safely accessible or a pitched roof? Are the dryers stackable appliances (harder to move), or full sized? All of this information will allow your vendor to provide you with the most accurate quote.
President, Southern Chute Inc.
Southern Chute Inc started operations in September of 2001 and now has offices in Fort Lauderdale and Ft Myers. We are state-licensed sheet metal contractors, specializing in replacement of chute systems in existing buildings. A family-owned business run by Joanna Ribner and her brother-in-law, Sandy Ribner, we are proud of the longevity of our staff and the loyalty of our customers. For true excellence, call the industry leader and innovator! For more information on Southern Chute, call (866) 475-9191 or visit www.SouthernChute.com.